What inspires plant scientists and why is their job so important? Harry Strek explains:
Why did you want to be a plant scientist?
I originally developed my interest in plants during my adolescence, when I went camping a lot. I was particularly fascinated with edible plants, and strived to learn a lot about them. To feed yourself only with them is incredibly hard to do. When I was a teenager, I worked on farms to earn pocket money. Part of the work was hoeing weeds, which is back-breaking, tedious work. Some of the edible plants were the ones I was hoeing out of a crop, so I recognized that they could significantly impair the production of food. That’s when I decided that I wanted to help feed the world. I went from studying Botany in college to studying agriculture (Weed Science) in graduate school.
Can you explain what your job involves?
I am the Scientific Director for Weed Resistance at the Bayer Weed Resistance Competence Center (WRCC) in Frankfurt. It basically comes down to working on understanding the drivers of resistance by weeds to herbicides and other control methods, how the resistance functions and developing solutions that are able to be adopted in the field. Since this problem is bigger than one company, we actively engage in establishing partnerships with leading researchers around the world, and I play a role in developing networks with them. In addition to understanding resistance and figuring out how to manage it, communicating this knowledge is extremely important. I work together with a team to develop different communications using a variety of platforms including, print, internet and social media.
What are the crop protection products that you are working on?
At the WRCC, we provide integrated solutions to optimize weed control and protect yield using the best possible knowledge about the type of resistance and its mechanism or mechanisms. Understanding resistance better helps us to make the best recommendations for farmers and related stakeholders. Recognizing that resistance can be extremely different in different fields, even on the same farm, these recommendations must often be adapted and tailored to individual fields. We accomplish this through working with local partners.
Can you describe how damaging these weeds can be for farmers?
Uncontrolled weeds can wipe out entire fields if not managed correctly, even if they are not resistant. Weeds are relentless and grow in crop after crop and in year after year. Managing resistant weeds complicates the situation by decreasing options. It can be done, but only by using all available tools together in an integrated program, including chemical and non-chemical ones. We are working on demonstrating that these integrated programs are essential to the long-term viability of modern weed control tools and that although they require initial investment in capital and changes to current programs, they will pay for themselves in the long run.
Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?
Farmers need guidance and solutions to fight pressing challenges like weed resistance in order to profitably manage their farms. Providing the tools to manage weeds in any situation and the knowledge on how to do it effectively, safely, economically and sustainably is what we do.
What inspires you about your job?
As I mentioned before, helping to feed the world is my goal, and we in the agricultural industry are doing many incredible things to achieve this when the world population is growing so quickly. I am so fortunate to be able to work on a part of this complex problem by focusing on weed control at a time when the challenges of resistance have made it a threat to our ability to securely produce food. I get to work globally with highly dedicated farmers and other professionals. I am exposed to a variety of weeds in a variety of cropping systems which helps me to learn new things that we can potentially apply elsewhere. It is a big responsibility and a tremendous challenge to do this, and it must be done with a sense of urgency due to the developing situation with resistance.
Who is your Food Hero?
My food hero is Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner and “Father of the Green Revolution.” I had the opportunity to meet with him for an hour with other young scientists quite a few years ago. Even though he was in his 80s he still showed he had that incredibly nimble mind and resolve to working on problems that guided him to bringing incredibly productive new varieties of wheat. He told us that urgency can be very motivational and help us to focus on the things that bring results. After all, all we do ultimately needs to bring positive results.